In my last post I excerpted a Letter to the Editor in the August 4th, 1860 edition of the proslavery Missouri Republican from “Slaveholder.” The letter explained why voting for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas for President was the only way for both the Union and slavery to continue peacefully in the United States. It was a fascinating plea against secession as a form of protecting enslaved property, and it highlighted the thoughts of many proslavery Missourians as the country spiraled towards war less than a year later.
In that very same issue of the Missouri Republican–on the front page, no less–the paper posted a comprehensive of listing of auctions and items for sale in St. Louis. And if you look closely enough, you’ll see a listing about a runaway slave and a couple listings from Bernard M. Lynch, the city’s most prosperous slave trader. One of those ads is for an enslaved boy “between ten and twelve years of age,” conveniently placed right next to ads for furnaces, steam engines, and other pieces of property.
I’ve been reading Historian Jelani Cobb’s essay on the four New Orleans Confederate monuments that have either come down or are slated to come down soon. I think we have to be careful about who we generalize as opposing the removal of these monuments and why they do so, but he makes the point that many protestors–some of which are making death threats against the city’s Mayor and/or using racist language and Confederate flags to intimidate the city’s African American population–are enamored with a glorified “a-la-carte relationship with history”:
the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause. But that excuse falls flat when recognizing, for instance, that there is no monument in New Orleans to the mass slave revolt that took place in 1811, when some two hundred men who had endured the brutality of bondage marched on the city, killing two white men and burning plantations as they went. This is not the version of valor recognized by the crowd before the Lee memorial, or those phoning in death threats to Landrieu’s office.
I feel like we have a tendency in the United States to glorify and valorize the nation’s soldiers, past and present, without assessing why they went to war in the first place. The exceptions to that theory are probably the Revolutionary War and World War II.
As long as we commemorate the Confederacy’s legacy purely in terms of its soldiers’ military service and frame the erection of Confederate monuments as an apolitical extension of that commemoration and nothing else, we will downplay the politics of why the Civil War occurred in the first place. And we will minimize the stories, experiences, and legacy of thousands of ten-year-old enslaved boys and girls who were sold out of slave pens in the Land of the Free while Lee and Beauregard marched to Dixie.
Bill O’Reilly is at it again. Whatever merits the Fox News pundit may have as a commentator on current events, his endeavors in historical scholarship are less than stellar. I admit to not being a regular reader of his “Killing” series, but his book Killing Lincoln–which I have read–was a mistake-ridden flop that offered nothing new to the historiography of Lincoln studies. Historians roundly criticized the book and Ford’s Theater–the very place where Lincoln was assassinated–refuses to carry it in their gift shop. O’Reilly’s influential platform on a popular news station gives him an enormous presence to influence hearts and minds across the United States, however, and so all historians must take his historical claims seriously. Whether or not his claims are accurate or inaccurate is less significant than the fact that his “history” books sell well and his identification as a historian resonates with his television followers. I interned with the National Park Service at the U.S. Grant National Historic Site (where I now work full-time) around the time Killing Lincoln was released, and I must have had at least two dozen visitors to the park over three months who told me they came because they had read that book. Never once did someone say they were visiting because they read a reputable history of the Lincoln assassination by universally respected scholars such as James Swanson, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman.
And so it was with great disappointment when O’Reilly, citing his identification as a historian, felt compelled to respond to First Lady Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of the White House’s construction by enslaved black Americans by stating that those enslaved people were actually well fed and adequately taken care of. O’Reilly’s comments continue a long history of Americans, particularly white Americans, addressing the history of U.S. slavery with qualifications, equivocations, and explanations that downplay the overarching influence of slavery in the building of this nation’s economic, social, and political foundations. “Slavery was bad, but…” “Slavery existed, but…”
In my years as a public historian on the front lines of historical interpretation–which include interpreting U.S. slavery–I have heard visitors claim that slavery was a benevolent influence on black Americans since it Christianized them and took them away from the savageries of Africa. I have heard visitors respond to my talks by saying that “black people owned slaves too” and that tens of thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy (“they don’t talk about that in the history books!”). They have told me that black slavery existed primarily “to address a labor shortage” and not because of race or racism. They have told me that these enslaved people, once they gained their freedom after the Civil War, largely chose to stay at their old master’s plantation because of their gratitude to the kindness and generosity of their former enslavers, and not because they lacked the economic resources or the freedom to obtain jobs, money, education, and land elsewhere. They have referred to the enslaved people as “the dependents,” a particularly ironic identifier given that “the dependents” were actually the white enslavers who relied on enslaved labor for their material success and high quality of life. They have told me that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War. They have gone on TripAdvisor and called my tours “politically correct” because we as an institution have made the interpretation of slavery a central goal of our educational mission. O’Reilly’s comments about slavery at the White House, therefore, were not new to me because they fit into this unfortunate tradition of literally whitewashing slavery from the story of the United States. I get these viewpoints expressed to me by ordinary white Americans too often.
Many historians have responded to O’Reilly’s comments with thoughtful essays refuting his perspective and asking what, exactly, he wanted to point out by stating them in the first place. Of these essays the biggest takeaway in my opinion has been the distinction between understanding the material conditions of slavery and the legal framework of U.S. slavery. This distinction, most forcefully argued by Rebecca Onion and Caleb McDaniel, shows that the day-to-day slave experience took many forms–from enslaved people who were “treated well” to those who were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused–but that legally all enslaved people were bound to the same rules and regulations of chattel slavery. This is not to suggest that the abuse any particular enslaved person endured or the personal gains an enslaved person made (such as Elizabeth Keckley earning wages and obtaining enough money to purchase her freedom and eventually become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker) should be disregarded, but that the bigger picture of the legal boundaries is necessary to understanding the crushing oppression of U.S. slavery. Whether or not the enslaved people who built the White House were well cared for must be fit within a legal context. That legal context includes the fact that U.S. chattel slavery was determined on the basis of race, that it was hereditary, that it was perpetual for the duration of one’s lifetime, that enslaved people always faced the fear of them or their loved ones being sold away, and that enslaved people lacked the most basic of individual freedoms, ownership of themselves. This is the context that is missing not just from O’Reilly’s comments, but many comments that I hear from Americans on a frequent basis. Part of my role as a public historian includes doing my part to provide a better understanding of this context for the people I interact with on a daily basis.
Here’s a list of articles by historians responding to O’Reilly:
Rebecca Onion, “What Bill O’Reilly Doesnt Understand About Slavery”
Last year I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant and a number of claims on social media alleging him to have owned slaves during the Civil War. Using primary sources in Grant’s own writing I demonstrated that these claims were completely false, and that a number of statements alleged to have come from Grant were actually made up quotes by people with too much time on their hands. The only enslaved person known to have been owned by Grant was William Jones, whom Grant freed in St. Louis in 1859. I wondered aloud if these claims intending to paint Grant as a slaveholding Union general spoke to a larger desire to portray the Civil War as a conflict that had little to do with slavery as a cause of the war. After all, how could the war be about slavery if the savior of the Union was a slaveholder? Moreover, I argued–and the credit for this argument goes to historian Brooks Simpson–that Grant’s views one way or the other towards slavery were irrelevant for understanding the causes of the Civil War since Grant had no political role in the coming of the war or the decision of eleven states to secede from the Union. He was a clerk for his father’s leather good store in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the war, far removed from the political crisis emerging in Washington, D.C. with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
The other day I received three comments from a person eager to contest that essay, and one of his arguments (which had nothing to do with the subject at hand but is nonetheless revealing) seems to suggest that the Confederate Constitution could have been seen as calling for the eventual end of slavery in the Confederacy because it banned the international slave trade. Again, it wasn’t all about slavery! This claim is an interesting one and worth exploring further. Does it have any merit?
The U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 9.1 that the international slave trade would be closed in 1808, but that Congress could not prohibit the trade until that time. The Confederate Constitution was in most regards almost an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution also bans the international slave trade within the Confederate states. There are two significant changes in Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution, however. One is that while the U.S. Constitution only vaguely refers to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the Confederate Constitution clearly stipulates that the subjects under consideration were “Negroes of the African race from any foreign country.” The other extremely significant change is that the Confederate Constitution did not call for a complete ban on the international importation of slaves. An additional clause stipulates that slaves from “the slaveholding states or territories of the United States of America” (which were now considered part of a foreign country) could still be imported into the Confederate states. The Confederate Constitution, in other words, still allowed for the importation of enslaved people from the border slaves states and Western territories like New Mexico that had not yet seceded from the Union.
This is when the date of the Confederate Constitution’s ratification comes into play. That constitution was adopted on March 11, 1861, roughly one month before the firing of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. At that time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, and eight border slaves states remained in the Union: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Banning the international slave trade was one method by which the Confederacy aimed to convince these states to secede, especially in the case of Virginia, whose economy by 1860 largely revolved around the interstate slave trade and the shipping of slaves to the South and West. By allowing the slave trade to continue between the U.S. and the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution allowed the uncertain border slave states a chance to continue selling their slaves to the Confederate states in the short-term while they debated their next step. In the long-term, after these border slave states had ostensibly left the Union and joined forces with the Confederacy, their continued financial interests in the slave trade would not be challenged by international trade with slaveholding countries in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Removing all protections for the domestic slave trade and embracing a “free trade” approach ran the risk of lowering the price of slave labor and putting border state slave traders out of business. There was also an international motivation for banning most of the international slave trade. The Confederacy attempted to make a pitch for support from European countries like England and France that had already banned slavery by demonstrating that they were willing to ban parts of the slave trade, even though they really had no desire of ending slavery as a whole any time soon.
Through these examples we can clearly see that the Confederacy’s banning of most of the international slave trade in its Constitution was not done in the hope of eventually abolishing slavery in the Confederacy, but to strengthen its domestic slave trade while hopefully winning points with England and France.
It’s also worth mentioning that a good number of Confederate supporters–although probably not the majority–supported the idea of re-opening the slave trade precisely because they knew it would help lower the cost of slave labor. James Paisley Hendrix, Jr.’s 1969 article in Louisiana History shows that support for a reopening of the trade increased greatly in the 1850s, and that a Southern convention in 1859 passed a resolution saying as much. The New Orleans Delta reflected these desires when they wrote an editorial in support of opening the trade, arguing that “We would re-open the African slave trade [so] that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more Negroes . . . Our true purpose is to diffuse the slave population as much as possible, and thus secure in the whole community the motives of self-interest for its support.”
So yeah, slavery had something to do with all of this.
Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.
My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.
One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.
The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.
The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.
The news website Indian Country Today is in the process of analyzing every U.S. President’s “attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.” This series of essays, written by journalist and English professor Alysa Landry, provides readers with thoughtful overviews of the evolution of Indian policy in the United States and offers a light into the thinking of the country as a whole towards its indigenous population. The series as of this blog post has gone up through James Garfield’s short presidency. Needless to say, nobody comes out looking very good, including 18th President Ulysses S. Grant.
I enjoyed reading Landry’s analysis of Grant and other presidents. There are a few minor quibbles to be had with the essay on Grant. It mentions the oft-repeated but never verified claim that Grant left the army in 1854 because of his alleged alcoholism, and a briefly expanded context for explaining the perspectives of those around him would have shown the fierce opposition Grant faced from numerous quarters to his Indian Peace Policy, particularly western settlers and leaders of the U.S. Army (“A good Indian is a dead Indian,” according to General Phil Sheridan; “Treachery is inherent in the Indian character,” according to General William T. Sherman”). While I don’t agree with Jean Edward Smith’s assessment that Grant’s Indian Peace Policy was “remarkably progressive and humanitarian,” (541) it’s also a stretch to conclude that Grant’s policies were intended and destined to perpetuate a “mass genocide” of the Indian population, as Landry seems to suggest.
President Grant sincerely believed that past Indian policy was flawed and that western settlers were at fault for continued violent conflict with the native population. Grant’s appointed Board of Indian Commissioners reported in 1869, for example, that “paradoxical as it may seem, the white man has been the chief obstacle in the way of Indian civilization.” And yet the proposed solutions from the Grant administration to address the problems were inadequate and shrouded in assumptions that many today would acknowledge as flawed and paternalistic. Grant believed that white and Indian cultures were incompatible with each other (“the fact is they do not harmonize well”) and that Indian tribes in the path of western settlement faced extinction if they did not give up their ways, become assimilated into white culture, and be put on a path towards American citizenship. Grant and many Americans at the time believed that U.S. citizenship was the greatest gift one could receive, and that with regards to the Indian tribes it was foolish for them to privilege their current lifestyles when given such a golden opportunity to become a part of American culture and politics.
Grant disregarded the advice of Sheridan and Sherman to exterminate the Indians and believed that establishing reservations and teaching Indian tribes the ways of white civilization (farming and Christianity in particular) would be the only way to preserve their lives in the face of rapid western settlement by white settlers. The reservation system would be a temporary stopgap until the Indians assimilated into American society. These policies were flawed in that the solutions to continued violence between white settlers and Indians were directed towards placating, isolating, and changing the behaviors of the Indians instead of the settlers who encroached upon native lands. Grant and several presidents before and after him claimed they could do little to stop further white settlement in the west, but conversely these same presidents did little to question or overturn past legislation like the 1862 Homestead Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the General Mining Act that encouraged further settlement by offering public land on the cheap for white settlers – land that historically and through agreements such as the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty had been rightfully entitled to Indian tribes before white settlers came. The development of railroads in the west–many through federal aid of some sort–also played a major role in encouraging further western settlement. So for all of the talk about preserving and protecting Native American culture, such intentions would not be privileged over the goals of further western settlement and the creation of new states in a larger political union and empire that encompassed lands from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.
The current U.S. election has been a consistent stream of embarrassing statements, extremist rhetoric, radical political stances, glaring hypocrisies, and nonstop media coverage that in many cases comes off as an uncritical infomercial for Hilary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominees of the Democrat and Republican Parties. I rarely discuss contemporary politics on this website and I don’t want to wade too deeply into those depths with this post.
One theme from this election that interests me, however, is the degree to which political change from the status quo is necessary to ensure future prosperity for the United States. Bernie Sanders and Trump maintain two remarkably contrasting political platforms, but they’re also the two loudest advocates for a political revolution that completely dismantles the vaguely-defined Washington “establishment” and puts a totally new order of governance into place. Meanwhile other candidates like Clinton and the now-departed John Kasich often speak in more moderate terms about incremental change, compromise, and the toning down of heated rhetoric.
Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has clearly resonated with a good number of Americans who, for various reasons, feel like they are falling behind economically while also watching their moral values and ways of life being destroyed in a twenty-first century culture war. The slogan offers itself as a great title for a manifesto in support of a conservative revolution. But what, exactly, does it mean when we call for America to become great again? Are we not great now? What greatness are we trying to recover? Who are we trying to take the country back from? When in American history was this country ever truly great for all? What does “Make America Great Again” say about how we view the whole of U.S. history?
In his 2015 publication Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket argues that the memory of the American Revolution and the development of U.S. history holds inherent “political and cultural implications” for how we view the world today. In sum, how we view the origins of the country’s founding can say a lot about how we view the role of politics and government in our lives today. Schocket distinguishes between those who view the American Revolution from an “essentialist” viewpoint and those who view it from an “organicist” viewpoint.
The essentialists argue that American history has only one discernible meaning that offers us clear lessons for navigating the contemporary world, and that any other interpretation or act of “historical revisionism” that diverts from the clear, God-ordained version of American history is flawed. This version of history emphasizes the importance of “private property, capitalism, traditional gender roles, and Protestant Christianity,” according to Schocket, and it views the U.S. Constitution as a perfect or near-perfect document that promotes freedom and liberty for all. The essentialists also assume that our contemporary U.S. government has strayed from its glorious founding ideals, and that the great future struggle of American society lies in restoring our political life to one that sits in harmony with the constitutional order that existed during the nation’s founding and early formation, which is the greatest, most free era in our history. The essentialist vision is all about making American great again.
The “organicist,” version of American history differs from the essentialist one in several ways. The organicists argue that there is no single, fully accurate version of American history that can be learned without interpreting the facts of the past. They believe that there are many ways to interpret this history and that appreciating the various interpretations people form about the past allows for a more holistic and accurate understanding of American history. For example, Schocket explains that “you might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they wanted to keep their slaves, and I might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they resented British governance, and we could both have a legitimate claim to be debated.” The organicists also refrain from glorifying the American Revolution and the nation’s early years too much, instead stressing the contrast between the ideals of the founders and the sometimes destructive policies they implemented in practice. The great future struggle of American society for the organicists isn’t so much about returning the country’s government to a state of perfect alignment with its glorious past (which in their minds is a contested belief subject to debate) as much as it’s about improving upon that past by achieving the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality through good governmental practices in the present. The organicist vision is perhaps best articulated through Sanders’ campaign slogan, “A Future to Believe In.” (It bears repeating, however, that the Sanders campaign platform of a “political revolution” to accomplish these ideals is contested, and I doubt all organicist-minded thinkers would agree with the necessity of such a revolution).
I suspect that most Americans fall somewhere in between the essentialist-organicist spectrum. I don’t believe the constitution or American history as a whole can be understood through one uniform narrative devoid of interpretation, and my training as a historian stresses the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and interpreting history through both primary and secondary sources. I also tend to agree with Ulysses S. Grant when he wrote (more or less) that it’s impossible for a contemporary society to solely live by the rules set by people hundreds of years ago. In these regards I find myself aligned more with the organicist interpretation. I can embrace some essentialist philosophies, such as the belief that the nation’s constitution and republican form of government have promoted freedom and liberty for many Americans, but I would argue that the challenge of enhancing everyone’s freedoms is a never-ending project that requires constant debate and discussion about the best path forward. There will never be a point when we wave a “Mission Accomplished” banner once we’ve successfully implemented a perfect form of Republican governance throughout the United States. Moreover, asking an essentialist-type question like “What would Jefferson do?” is not very useful. Instead, we should follow the lead of historian David Sehat and ask, “What is the common good today?”